Dorothy, Peter, and the Man at the Back of the Church

Growing up in the “Coal Regions” of Northeastern Pennsylvania was a special experience – especially for a Catholic family. My small town had so many Catholic churches, it seemed like there was one on every corner. Growing up Eastern Catholic was easy, too, because all of my friends knew “who we were,” and could visit one of the three Byzantine Catholic Churches in town. I appreciate that aspect of my hometown more now, living in the heavily German/PA Dutch region of Central Pennsylvania. There are Catholics here, and the local diocese is thriving. But it’s still so different from the coal town of my childhood. That’s why I’m so fortunate to have a Catholic Church (with an Adoration Chapel) close to my home. A quick visit with Jesus, or partaking in daily Mass are blessings easily taken for granted. Any opportunity to be in the Lord’s House, and experience His real, Eucharistic presence, should inspire both gratitude and humility. Note the emphasis on humility, as it’ll be important in a moment.

I’m really good at judging books by their covers. No, I’m not talking about an ability to size up a Barnes and Noble display and produce reviews worthy of the New York Times. That would be a noteworthy talent! What I mean is that I am quick to judge others, based on impressions formed without having a conversation, let alone getting to know them. It’s not that I do this all the time – but more often than I’d care to acknowledge. With some honest self-reflection perhaps others might also admit of this “talent” for reaching quick conclusions based on appearance alone. Business gurus tell us the first impression means everything. The Gospel tells us our personal impressions don’t tell the whole story, since angels – and God Himself – sometimes come in strange disguises (cf. Hebrews 13:2, Matthew 25:35-45). I was challenged by this lesson at Mass one Fall morning.

In the chapel of the church where I often go for daily Mass, a group of “regulars” fill the pews. Though it isn’t my parish church, I’ve been incorporated into this group of retirees, stay at home moms, and others whose schedules are as flexible as mine. There is a man who often sits in the last pew of the small chapel. In appearance, he’s kind of scruffy and unkempt. He mostly keeps to himself, sharing in the Sign of Peace, but otherwise sitting silently through the Mass. He looks – for lack of a more polite term – like “a bum.” I notice that people generally avoid sitting near him, if they can help it. One or two women seem to look out for him, smiling warmly, exchanging a few words, and even chauffeuring him to the store. But for the most part, people keep their distance, unsure of sitting near someone who is so…unlike the rest of us.

Recently I saw this man at the grocery store, wearing the same clothes I see him in every time he comes to Mass. He pushed his cart along, catching wondering looks from the few shoppers attentive to those around them. My grocery list fulfilled, I made for the checkout line and paid for my items. As I placed the last package in my cart and started for the door, I heard someone shout “Hey!” just behind me. It was him. The man said, “Don’t you go to the parish?” “I’m not a parishioner,” I replied, “but I try to get to daily Mass.” His face wore the smile of someone who’d run across a friend for the first time in awhile as he said, “I thought I recognized you. I see you at Mass. Will you be there Friday?” I said I hoped so, and he said, “Good. I like to see you there.” Smiling back at him, I said good bye and God bless, and went on my way.

The encounter in the grocery store really made an impression on me, and made me examine my tendency to not only make snap judgments about people, but to let those judgments take pride of place over love; to believe I know it all rather than taking the time to know a person. It also reminded me of a story I remembered reading about Peter Maurin, co-founder (with Dorothy Day) of the Catholic Worker Movement. You can read about Maurin here, and I recommend learning more about this saintly man. Peter Maurin was an… “eccentric.” He cared little for possessions or position, happily identifying with “the man on the street,” while endeavoring to emulate the saints. When he met Dorothy Day in 1932, she couldn’t have realized a movement would be born of their friendship; a movement inspired by the Gospel to regain a sense of community among people, in which the race “to have and to do” would be replaced by the desire “to give and to be with.” One can only imagine the shock and disappointment Maurin (and Day) would experience if they saw the shape 21st century consumerism has taken – not to mention the sight of so many people walking down the street, meeting for dinner, or riding the bus with heads down and fingers typing, tapping and swiping. Having seen the brutal assaults on humanity wrought during the Second World War, they may have been overwhelmed by the sophistication with which we now perpetrate crimes against human dignity: from terrorism and torture, and attacks on human life at its beginning and ending; to the more “subtle” discarding of those we find undesirable by “swiping left” – or avoiding them at Mass because they “look different.”

Peter Maurin was an authentic radical; not what we think of today as a violent extremist, or a political rabble-rouser. He believed that societal/cultural change for the good was only possible with a radical (at the root) shift in our thought and behavior. Only by getting back to the roots of the Gospel and Jesus’ example can we see God in each other, and thus be inspired to follow Jesus’ mandate to love each other with His own merciful love (cf. John 13:34-35, Matthew 5:43-48). Maurin believed that if there is to be a “revolution” that changes the world, it will be accomplished in the radical return to love of God and neighbor (community), performing the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy (action), and sharing Christ in and through the ordinary aspects of daily life. Maurin worked toward and prayed for such a revolution by developing relationships in which the love of Christ could be shared over a meal, in a “round table” discussion, or as he worked side-by-side with other men and women in manual labor. He shared Christ with anyone who would listen, and offered both spiritual and material comfort and aid for those whom others would not so kindly describe as “eccentric.”

Dorothy Day relates many stories about Peter and his radical plan for changing the world, but the one I remembered when I met the disheveled man from daily Mass at the grocery store continues to move and to challenge me. Peter was to give a talk for a women’s group and Dorothy herself saw to it that he made it on the train. When hours passed and he hadn’t arrived at his destination, one of the women called Dorothy, distressed that there was no sign of him at the station. Everyone who’d arrived on that train was gone, save for one man, “a bum” asleep on a bench. Immediately, Dorothy knew that was Peter. Peter Maurin, the Catholic thinker with the radical idea that we should live the Gospel boldly and faithfully, who was sought after for his intellect and ability to teach, and advocated for a return to the Christian ideals of community and hospitality. Peter Maurin was overlooked as “a bum,” insignificant, undesirable, and ignored because his appearance didn’t meet expectations. He might just as well have been the unkempt, quiet man sitting in the last row of the chapel in a small town in Pennsylvania.

Books have covers, but they don’t reveal the story inside. For that, we must take them in hand and open them to discover the story for ourselves. People are a lot like books in that way. We may think we have all we need to know about a person by looking at “the cover.” It’s only in humbly approaching another person with wonder, and with the patience to discover what’s inside, that our expectations are shattered, freeing us to share in their story. And that can have radical consequences for both of us.

“I want a change, and a radical change. I want a change from an acquisitive society to a functional society, from a society of go-getters to a society of go-givers.”

~Peter Maurin

Ann Koshute teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program.

A Saint for My Times

© Copyright 2010 CorbisCorporationHaving never met Dorothy Day in person (I only learned of her almost a decade after her death), I may have no business offering an opinion about whether or not she should be canonized a saint in the Catholic Church. Yet, I will attempt to do so, as she has had an immeasurable influence on my life, particularly as model of a Catholic woman in the United States of America in the twentieth century.

I came alive in my faith as a college student at the University of Notre Dame in the late eighties. A study abroad program in Rome caused my experience of “church” to explode – I came to realize that my suburban New Jersey parish and Catholic school were not exactly representative of this Body of Christ to which I belonged.  My post-Vatican II American Catholicism seemed superficial in light of the global reach of the Church, not to mention its ancient Tradition. I returned home wanting a deeper relationship with Jesus, wanting to live His Gospel more radically than I had before.

Upon my return to campus, I took a course in Catholic Social Teaching. It was there that I was assigned The Long Loneliness. And there she was. A lay woman living the Gospel radically. In the United States. In the turbulent 20th century. A saint for MY times.

There are two reasons why I would like to see Dorothy Day canonized so she can become a role model for American Catholics. The first addresses the polarization of the Catholic “right” and the Catholic “left”. In the past twenty-five years, I have watched the gap between traditional Catholics and liberal Catholics grow ever wider. I believe Dorothy represents what is right and good about both. She transcends the polarity, encourages the good of each side, and challenges the not-so-good. In her quintessential Catholic way, she embraces the both-and, as opposed to the dualistic either-or.  Thus, a woman who attended a Latin Mass everyday (prior to Vatican II, of course) was an ardent promoter of social justice (the influence of Fr. Virgil Michel, O.S.B. is evident).

We cannot build up the idea of the apostolate of the laity without the foundation of the liturgy.

-Dorothy Day, “Liturgy and Sociology”, The Catholic Worker, January 1936

Dorothy understood that meeting Christ in the liturgy is essential for performing the works of mercy. Her ardent prayer life, including her devotion to Jesus in the Eucharist as a daily communicant, her love of the saints, and her fidelity to the Liturgy of the Hours as an Oblate of St. Benedict, fueled her work with the poor and her desire for justice.  When she challenged the hierarchical church, she was challenging it to be more faithful to the liturgy by being more radically faithful to its implications. When one worships and receives the Body of Christ, one has an obligation to care for all God’s children (and creation). She did not challenge the Church to change her teachings, but rather to live up to them. She saw the potential of an organized Church to truly change the world in a way that not even organized labor could. I will not presume what Dorothy would say about the liturgical reform of Vatican II. My point is simply that in order to sustain her work at the Catholic Worker, she needed to worship well. Likewise, because she worshipped well, she was moved to do the work she did. Liturgy was the source and summit of her Christian life.

The second reason addresses the inculturation of the American church. Founded by Protestants with a deistic worldview contrary to the biblical-sacramental worldview of the Church (and of Dorothy), the American project poses a challenge to Catholics of how to be a “good Catholic” and a “good American”. Dorothy taught me that it is OK to put my Catholic faith before my American citizenship. The fact that she never voted, even though she had marched and gone to jail for the privilege, tells me that the only true authority in her life was God, and that her work would be the same no matter who was in the White House. In this way she was an anarchist – not so that she could do whatever she wanted, but so she would do whatever God wanted her to do, regardless of the consequences. She did not depend on the state to do for her brothers and sisters what she knew was her responsibility as a Christian. And she was willing to be a martyr for it. In this way, she was truly free.

Though I never met the woman and may have no place at the table of her cause for canonization, I hope and pray that Dorothy Day is made an official saint of the Catholic Church. I pray for it everyday. Dorothy was a faithful daughter of the Church, and an inspiration to this Catholic woman in the United States of America in the twentieth (and twenty-first) century, as I strive to be a faithful daughter myself.

Prayer for the Canonization of Dorothy Day

God our Creator,
Your servant Dorothy Day exemplified the
Catholic faith by her conversion,
life of prayer and voluntary poverty,
works of mercy, and
witness to the justice and peace
of the Gospel.
May her life
inspire people
to turn to Christ as their savior and guide,
to see his face in the world’s poor and
to raise their voices for the justice
of God’s kingdom.
We pray that you grant the favors we ask
through her intercession so that her goodness
and holiness may be more widely recognized
and one day the Church may
proclaim her Saint.
We ask this through Christ our Lord.
Amen.

Carmina Chapp is Associate Director of Online Theology Programs for Saint Joseph’s College. She lives on the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker Farm in northeastern Pennsylvania.

The Ordinariness of Sainthood

Don’t call me a saint – I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.

Dorothy Day

A painting by Nicholas Brian Tsai.

A painting by Nicholas Brian Tsai.

One of Dorothy Day’s better known quotes, some interpret it to mean that she didn’t think much of the saints and of sainthood in general. Indeed, there are those in the Catholic Worker Movement that she co-founded with Peter Maurin who do not support her cause for canonization, claiming she would not want it, and that the money spent on the process should be given to the poor.

Yet, her attitude toward sainthood is exactly what makes her so relevant for us today in the post-Vatican II church. Her remark is directed at those who see sainthood as something extraordinary that can then be dismissed by the average person as something out of reach. They are happy to call her a saint for serving the poor, because then they don’t have to, since they would never presume themselves to be that holy.

But Dorothy didn’t want her work with the poor to be dismissed as something extraordinary. She understood it as simply her duty as a Christian to care for the needs of her brothers and sisters. And she wondered why all Christians didn’t feel the same way, why they all didn’t love their neighbor as themselves, and why they did not act on those feelings. Wasn’t that the message of the Gospel?

“You have heard that it was said, `You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?  You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Matthew 5:43-48

To be perfect, then, is to be like God. It is to love perfectly, as God loves. Only God is holy. All holiness comes from God, and it is given to humanity as a gift. A saint is one who is made holy, or sanctified. Saints are not holy by their own efforts. They are made holy by God as a gift, and their efforts are their acceptance of, appreciation of, and cooperation in this gift.

Holiness depends on one’s relationship with God. People are holy to the degree that they are united to God. By perfectly holy, then, we mean intimately united to the Trinitarian God (the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit) so much so that there is a oneness of heart, mind and will. In this intimate union, we are able to love perfectly as God loves. Pope Francis tells us of the need for a relationship with God on this road to holiness.

Being holy is not a privilege for the few, as if someone had a large inheritance; in Baptism we all have an inheritance to be able to become saints. Holiness is a vocation for everyone. Thus we are all called to walk on the path of holiness, and this path has a name and a face: the face of Jesus Christ. He teaches us to become saints.

Pope Francis, Angelus,  November 1, 2013

One who is sanctified possesses a yearning for God, an intimacy with God, perseverance in prayer, humility of heart, and a love for others. All of us are called to this holiness. Each of us is called to this intimate relationship with God. This is the beauty of relationship – each one is unique. God communicates with us uniquely. His message is the same – God will not contradict himself. He only speaks the truth. But his communication with us is so personal, so “meant just for us”.

We must strive to unite our heart, mind, and will to that of Christ – to love as Christ loves, to think as Christ thinks, and to desire as Christ desires. This seems rather extraordinary (as those who dismissed Dorothy Day as such), but it is, in fact, what is expected of every baptized person. The grace of our baptism empowers us to be like Christ. We need only to cooperate in it.

We are all called to be great saints, don’t miss the opportunity.

Mother Angelica

Carmina Chapp is Associate Director of Online Theology Programs at Saint Joseph’s College.